Are boards asking for the right sort of person when recruiting a new trustee?
I get a regular flow of trustee positions via LinkedIn and in my inbox and I was struck looking through them, by the sorts of trustee being looked for. A common feature in these adverts is for specialist skills. These are usually listed and almost always include fundraising but IT, legal and marketing are also mentioned.
Another feature is a desire for someone knowledgeable about the work of the charity. In the case of some charities who work in areas like housing or social care, there is likely to be a number of people who have these skills or with relevant experience. But other, more specialised charities, are less likely to find someone who is local to them and thus able to attend meetings. For instance, one sought a trustee with knowledge of the world of cycling. Another for work they were doing in Africa. So, they are looking for someone with this knowledge, who lives within reasonable travelling distance of the meeting place and who has skills relevant to be a trustee. A tall order I imagine but one can only wish them luck.
But it does raise the point about what it is a trustee is for. They all seem to be looking for a collection of specialists. I imagine therefore their perfect board would be made up of people knowledgeable of the work the charity does; IT, marketing, financial, HR and legal specialists and finally a fundraising person. Is this board therefore just there to hand out advice on these topics? Is it imagined the chief executive arrives at the board meeting with some staffing or other HR problems for example and the HR board member opines on what should be done? Likewise all the other topics in a meeting which becomes a sort of ‘ask me another’.
Surely, trustees are there to offer more general guidance on how the charity is performing? Is not a degree of detachment desirable, combined with asking questions about strategic, performance and branding issues (to mention three)? Are there not advantages for some board members not to know that much about the technical issues but to ask those broader questions such as ‘why are we doing this?’ ‘is there another way of doing …?’ or ‘where other alternatives looked at before deciding on …?’ My experience of meetings -boards or otherwise – is that if there are too many specialists the discussion can become quite narrow and even introspective. Sorry, but technical people and specialists love delving into the detail. If they possess the required knowledge, they are in their comfort zone. I contend that one of the roles of a trustee is to be the grit in the oyster. To ask the idiot question if you like, to bring some kind of perspective from the outside world. To perhaps draw people away from their comfort zones.
I mentioned in an earlier post, meeting someone from a medical charity, the trustees of which were all sufferers of the medical condition. She said the charity nearly failed and the new chief executive gradually brought in other non-sufferers.
I not saying there should be no such specialists, I am saying that a board should be balanced and there are other skills that a board member can contribute. These I discuss in my book.
Author of ‘How to be a Successful Trustee‘ ISBN 978-1-913012-61-8